When Juwon, an eight-year-old Nigerian girl, gets ejected from a Sunday school service she becomes embroiled in the criminal underworld surrounding the institution. Akinola Davies Jr sets his Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning short, which is based on a real-life experience, in the intense reality of present day Nigeria. However, he incorporates a fantastical element into the fold, allowing Juwon to sense oncoming danger. Davies’ clever embrace of the fantastical allows for a truly mesmerising tale which explores the challenges of maintaining a youthful experience in a complicated and messy adult world. DN caught up with the British Nigerian writer/director to chat about the lack of difference between fantasy and reality, shooting in the Nigerian heat with 200 extras, and the memorable interpretations of his story that have stayed with him.
What brought you to tell the story of Lizard?
I wanted to tell a personal story. This is based on a true story. Everything that happened in Lizard happened to me when I was eight years old, apart from seeing a giant lizard, of course. We got robbed at gunpoint on the way from church when me and my brother and cousins when we were really young. The memory of that has always been in my mind. That was something we never spoke about. So, I guess, when I found out what a shock it could be, I started looking for memories and immediately I just wrote Lizard basically.
I don’t think there is a difference between real life and fantasy. I don’t see it.
I think maybe another reason is that children on the continent, in different regions, a lot of the time don’t have the privilege of closure, therapy or anything like that. So, I guess Lizard for me is like me trying to give the childhood version of myself a little bit of context as to why something like that could happen.
What inspired the film’s blend of fantasy elements within real-life situations?
I don’t think there is a difference between real life and fantasy. I don’t see it. I think as human beings we have the gift of being able to feel at some moments, like when you turn into a dark street and you feel like you are in a horror film. Or some versions of when you go into some party and see someone you’re attracted to and you feel like you are in a romance, and some moments you feel like you are dreaming when you are awake. It’s just my interpretation of how I see life but I am also very educated to what it means to be an African storyteller and, for me, that involves a lot of embellishing folklore and oral stories to bring stories to light. So, in that sense, there is no separation from reality. It’s just how we interpret the world. There is no hierarchy of what’s real and what’s fantasy and what is a dream and what is reality. Whether you are speaking to humans or animals it’s all of equal value in that sense.
I really loved the tension created in the score, who did you work with when developing it and what were you looking to evoke?
I was really fortunate that we got a lot of music from a brilliant musician called Tim Dewit who used to be in an avant-garde band in the 90s called Gang Gang Dance, he now works under the name Dutch E Germ. Then I worked with a sound designer and composer called CJ Mirra. He manipulated a lot of what Tim sent us. I just really wanted to create something visceral and make something that felt like it could sort of occupy the minds of whoever was listening. I am very obsessed with the science of sound and how you can create sounds or use frequencies that make it sound like different parts of your brain are hearing it. We had loads of conversations about how we could really use the sound as to add character and how it can transform what you are looking at.
For me, I was trying to create once again a blur between reality and fantasy. The sound is quite visceral, it’s quite raw, and quite industrial at the same time. There is loads of nature and there are soft sounds and we were also just talking about this theme that kept coming up. I think we were really focused on recreating a feeling that matches what we are looking at.
Similarly, the camerawork is a mixture of slow, foreboding movements, juxtaposed with a frenetic handheld style. How did you decide to tell Juwon’s story on a visual level?
The main priority for me was to have a lot of contrast between light and dark, high and low and shaping the lights. That was kind of my main focus in conversations with the DP Shabier Kirchner. I think in terms of the language of the film, it’s really an interpretation of my story. I just really wanted to explore the contrast between the light and the dark and how things fall off really quick and I really wanted to catch Nigeria on film and make it look really humid and sweaty the way it is.
The rest of it is showing this small character in large spaces. We honed in on a lot of contrast. The only real bit when there is a lot of handheld drama is the beginning and the big scene towards the end. For us is the language, the rhythm. We wanted to have everyone at the beginning and then we wanted to slow down the pace and echo what it feels like to be in Lagos and be quite slow and going back up again fast and slow again. Us Nigerians, we have a patter of how we speak to each other and sometimes it’s slow. Sometimes the camera work reflects that. Shabier did a brilliant job of grounding us so we were aware of when you move the camera. As a filmmaker that’s how you show emotion, so for the rest of the time we wanted to just kind of keep you focused on the big picture.
What were the challenges of shooting on the ground in Nigeria?
Where do you want to start! There is nothing negative, it’s more like the process of how you work around anything that can give you a different springboard to help you create. We knew shooting in Nigeria can be tricky at times so we found a shooting location where we shot 90% of the film and a large enough space where we could have the crew and build the set. It was very important to me that we were all together all the time and collaboratively working on something. I have shot in Nigeria a lot; my brother (Wale Davies) was serving as a writer and co-producer which was a huge help because it meant that we knew the landscape really well and how to play to our strengths and how to avoid what could be our weaknesses.
We had loads of conversations about how we could really use the sound as to add character and how it can transform what you are looking at.
I think shooting in 35 degree heat is pretty intense so there is a lot of water and breaks. Equally I am a democratic filmmaker; I don’t micromanage people, I like people based on what they do in the context of what we are making. I like giving people a lot of freedom because making a film is really hard so I really want people to just enjoy the process. Also, having a scene with 200 extras was a bit of a challenge. I definitely felt like a politician at one point. I was walking around giving people water and Cola just to keep them happy whilst waiting around for ages. I had a fantastic team; they’re basically like a family to me so whatever challenges we faced them together.
From a production standpoint, how long did the the development of Lizard take from start to finish?
I had written Lizard in January 2019 and then we got commissioned in February and got the producer on board and then me and my brother worked the whole thing out in May 2019. Then we got green-lit in September. We were initially supposed to shoot in October 2019 but we needed more time so we pushed it to January 2020. The edit was finished in June 2020. So it was about a year and a half.
Since your premiere last October, what are the most interesting conversations you’ve had with audience members about Lizard?
We have so many! People want to know lots of stuff about the film but I prefer to listen to people’s version of what they think is happening versus wanting to tell them my version because I am more interested in the dialogue than people just saying that’s it, I get it. I prefer hearing what people feel and what they see and remember and what details they hold on to.
Lots of women speak about the moment where the door is closed in Suwan’s face in the money counting room and talking about the older woman smiling and looking at the younger woman with the sort of a knowing look without saying anything. I find that really interesting. People want to know about the lizard and what it represents. I enjoy that. And also I like that it leaves people wanting more, for me that’s the biggest compliment when they say, “We want more, we want more”. That’s exactly the lingering taste I want to leave. They will come to see the next thing. I feel it’s just like the starter, you know?
And last but not least, what’s next for you?
That’s a million pound question! Just living. I have been very fortunate in my life to have found something I love and, for me, it’s really important to develop a sort of holistic and sustainable relationship with being a filmmaker and not thinking I have to rush and do things. This is the life I wanted for myself and have been pursuing for at least the last 16 years, so I am not trying to rush or make anyone skim lines apart from the deadlines for myself. I just want to continue to learn and to shadow big directors. I just want to be on sets without me being the star of the show. I want to see how people run their sets. I want to see how films are made, how TV is constructed and find how the stories I want to tell fit into those worlds as opposed to just like making my stories fit in those worlds. I want the world to fit into my stories. Just living and breathing and trying to stay grounded and empowering my friends and family who I believe in as artists and people I want to collaborate with, and meet people and develop relationships. Hopefully, from there, make interesting work.